Wednesday, November 7, 2018

"Men on Boats"

Men on Boats
Jaclyn Backhaus

The Cast of Men on Boats
Every day as we travel through our city streets, down our highways, and across our bridges, we encounter names that we mostly have no idea who the person being honored actually was.  Most of the time, we do not even wonder.  But behind many of those nomenclatures are forgotten stories of invention or discovery; of artistry, ingenuity, or bravery; of incredible perseverance, risk, and often sacrifice. 

One such story lies behind the name of the U.S.’s largest manmade reservoir, Lake Powell, a mammoth body of water on the mighty Colorado River.  In her play Men on Boats, Jaclyn Backhaus seeks to entertain and enlighten us about the first government-sanctioned trip in 1869 down that river into the canyon soon to be named Grand by the leader of the ten-man expedition, John Wesley Powell.  But she has decided to tell the tale – one at times as tall as any piece of American folklore -- through the voices of ten women.  In the current American Conservatory Theatre production of Men on Boats, ten, highly diverse, female actors of the Bay Area step with gusto, grit, and grin into the real-life, white men of Powell’s historical expedition – proving that they can grunt, snarl, spar, and spit as good or better than any man ever did in the great, unexplored outdoors.

The Cast of Men on Boats
Amidst a dozen or more rising and often moving, cut-out cliffs that are marked with the early mappings of the Utah/Arizona river wilderness (thanks to the designs of Nina Ball), four wooden boats and their oaring crews set out on what is to be a hair-tingling, life-risking ride.  While we only see vessels defined by a chair with a life preserver under it, by a pointed bow with no rest of boat, or maybe by just a splash of light on the stage, there is little doubt that they are floating on a wild and mad river. 

The Cast of Men on Boats
The split-second, coordinated choreography that Movement Coach Danyon Davis and Director Tamilla Woodard orchestrate is phenomenal and well worth the price of the evening’s ticket as these explorers simulate a journey full of rapids, whirlpools, and even waterfalls.  Tight clumps of bodies in each boat lean hard to left, jerk back and forth, shudder almost uncontrollably, or suddenly rise – with all such movements accompanied with looks sometimes of thrill and wonder but more often with uneasy anticipation followed by sheer fear.  Eyes strain to see what unknown peril is around the next bend and open in wide-eyed, stunned shock when the realities of protruding rocks, turbulent water, and narrow canyon walls come into view.  As a boat gets into trouble, ropes (sometimes real, sometimes invisible) are tossed; and bodies strain to the vein-popping max to save a fellow boat from disaster.

Lauren Spencer, Arwen Anderson & Lisa Hori-Garcia
The realities of this simulated excursion are greatly enhanced by the sounds of rushing waters, flying eagles, and slivering snakes by designer Kate Marvin, who also adds snare drums and occasional harmonica chords to provide that feel of an expedition not unlike the grind and drudgery but also the stimulative excitement of a battlefield.   Robert Hand’s lighting helps define both vessels and river while creating a sense of awed grandeur of both day and night in the Grand Canyon.  The costumes of Christine Crook smack of some humor as she dons these women to be men and provides a portrait of their eclectic, rag-tag backgrounds.

Lisa Hori-Garcia, Rosie Hallett & Annemaria Rajala
As exciting as it is to witness this reenactment of a river exploration fraught with danger but also filled with exhilaration, the real joy of Men in Boats is to get to know these men – all either Civil War veterans or mountain men and none experienced river runners – and get to know them through the lens of women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds playing men.  Convincing as they are of their pumped-up testosterone tendencies to brag, brawl, and bully, these men also tell their story through a more feminine lens to magnify their innate shared teamwork, humanity, and caring.  By doing so, their story becomes all the more engaging, funny, sad and in the end, all the more admirable and believable.

A prime example of the feminine defining more acutely the masculine hero is Liz Sklar as the one-armed, always optimistic leader of the expedition, John Wesley Powell.  Her Powell is a combination of fearless persistence; ongoing inspiration; and almost goofy, kid-like excitement.  Through this Powell, we get a glimpse of how a leader might stand up to possible mutiny driven from starvation and exhaustion and do so without a gun’s loaded stock staring at the to-be traitors.  We see how a leader can not take self so seriously as he barely hangs onto a cliff to grab the shed pants of the guy above him, doing so certainly with some trepidation but also with almost a tongue-in-his-own cheek of the ridiculous situation he has gotten himself into. 

Sarita Ocón as Dunn Explains Fishing by Gunny Sack
The yin to Powell’s yang is William Dunn, a fur-capped woodsman played with spunk and spirit by Sarita Ocón.  The two share wonderful moments as Dunn looks for just the right jagged ridge or high cliff to leave his name attached and as Powell both encourages and celebrates that moment of discovery and decision.  But Dunn has a cautious side, too, and is not past challenging with pent-up frustration and some anger the leader he also clearly admires.  Sarita Ocón as Dunn is a wonderful contrast to Liz Sklar as Powell, with their relationship illustrating the emotional pushes and pulls that must have occurred in every such wilderness outing of the unknown in the early days of this country’s history.

The richness of this tale – sometimes a tale that takes on aspects of a epic movie and other times, of a animated cartoon – comes from an array of characters whose personalities the playwright and director team up to ensure we have a chance to meet in depth, one-by-one.  Amy Lizardo is the fire-plug-sized, big-hearted, cook Hawkins who massacres a rattlesnake with a coffee pot one minute and serves up grilled snake the next.  Lauren Spencer and Lisa Hori-Garcia are the Howland brothers, with the Ms. Spencer also playing one of two native Utes who like to use their proper English with a modern twist of phrase and their snide side remarks to prove (at least to themselves and us) that the natives know much more about the world around them than these white greenhorns.

Katherine Romans & Annemaria Rojala
Rosie Hallett is the red-faced, aristocratic Englishman, Hall, who is along for the ride of his life with these Yankees, including with Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala), a mostly silent, Civil War vet with some apparent PTSD and a prone habit of singing made-up songs that leave more puzzled looks than not.  Katherine Romans is the young whippersnapper, Bradley, a vet himself whose eyes swell to full-moon size more often than not on this adventure but who is equally loyal and brave to the end -- no matter the death-defying, food-depriving times the group must endure.  

Arwen Anderson and Libby King round out this crew of ten as Frank Goodman and John Colton Summer – a group some might call misfits; and some, fool-hearty.  However, after running the mighty Colorado with them in ACT’s and Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, all should call these men here represented by women as most worthy that their forgotten names and legacies are for at least ninety minutes remembered, honored, and celebrated.

Rating: 4 E

Men on Boats continues through December 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.  Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or at the Strand Box Office Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or curtain).  Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at

Photos by Kevin Berne

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